Florida Gators Linebacker Preview: In Search Of A Leader

This is the sixth in a series of position-by-position analysis of the 2020 Florida Gators

David Reese II and James Houston IV share a moment after the Orange Bowl. Photo Credit: Chad Ritch

In his four years on the job patrolling the middle, fighting off determined offensive linemen who wanted to get at his feet to knock him down as he moved to plug a hole to make a stop, David Reese II was in on 322 tackles. A junior-year injury that caused him to miss three games is the only thing that kept him from cracking the all-time top ten tackles list at the University of Florida.

Reese is gone now and will most likely make his living playing football for money on Sundays in the coming years. The shoes he leaves behind at UF will be difficult to fill but there are talented enough players to replace Reese’s productivity.

Replacing Reese’s leadership? Well, that might be another story because as productive as Reese was, he was like having an assistant coach on the field. You want your middle linebacker to be relentless in pursuit and an able tackler. Reese was all that but what really made him stand out was his command of the huddle. When he got the signal in from the sideline, he made sure everyone was in the right place. When he saw the opposing quarterback audibling out of a play, Reese was quick to recognize and make accurate adjustment calls.

Put simply, Reese led. The Gators followed.

David Reese II leaves the Florida Gators better than he found them. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

In Ventrell Miller (6-0, 225, RJR), Jeremiah Moon (6-6, 240, RSR), Lacedrick Brunson (6-1, 230, RJR) and James Houston IV (6-1, 235, RJR), the Gators have an experienced foursome with speed and excellent instincts. Add to the mix Mohamoud Diabate (6-2, 220, SO), who showed as a freshman that he can be unblockable when he comes off the edge, and the Gators have a group that can stuff the run, get to the passer and even drop in coverage. Behind them are six with unquestioned talent but lacking experience.

That leads us back once again to the question, who is going to step up to lead? Which one – or even better, which two – can be the calming voice in the huddle as well as the traffic cop who gets everyone in the right place and has the recognition abilities to check things when he sees the opposing QB changing the play at the line of scrimmage?

The answer to that question will determine just how good Florida’s defense can be. If, perhaps, Miller and/or Moon can take over that leadership role seamlessly, then the Gators will have a ferocious, attacking defense that will rank among the best in the nation. The Florida defense oozes talent but is there one or two among them that can ooze leadership?

Can Ventrell Miller be the next leader of the linebackers? Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

Miller seems to be the likely candidate after a breakout redshirt sophomore season in 2019 when he was in on 55 tackles. He had 3.0 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss and broke up a couple of passes. Miller saved his best for last in 2019 when he was in on 22 tackles in the final three games against Missouri, Florida State and Virginia. Though not the ideal size for an inside linebacker, he has exceptional speed and does a great job maneuvering in traffic without getting picked off.

Moon has freakish athletic ability but can he stay healthy an entire season? He has the speed and length to be scary good off the edge but he’s shown when healthy that he’s a solid tackler in the running game as well. In just nine games last season Moon was in on 31 tackles with 3.0 sacks, 3.0 quarterback hurries, 6.5 tackles for loss and a couple of pass breakups. He has the size and speed to cover a tight end in the passing game as well as the ability to disrupt the passer when he comes off the edge. Injured in the Georgia game, Moon didn’t play the last four games of 2019 so it is imperative that he stays injury-free in 2020. If he is healthy, Moon could come up with an All-SEC type of season.

Houston could be a breakout guy in the middle after a solid redshirt sophomore season in which he was in on 38 tackles with 3.5 sacks, 6.0 tackles for loss and a couple of quarterback hurries. Teamed with Miller, Houston gives the Gators two very tough and capable tacklers. They also have the speed and instincts to get to the passer when they blitz straight up the gut. Houston is capable of replacing Reese’s productivity in the middle if he can stay healthy and find a level of consistency that at times evaded him last year. He was all over the field against Vanderbilt when he was in on eight tackles, but only a combined seven in the final three games with Missouri, Florida State and Virginia.

Houston seems a likely candidate for the LB's new leader. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

Brunson is invaluable to Florida’s special teams but he began to emerge in the linebacker rotation as the season progressed in 2019 when he finished with 22 tackles including 1.0 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. Consistency will get him more playing time. He had 5 tackles against Tennessee and 6 against Vanderbilt, half his production for the entire year. He didn’t make a single tackle in the last two games against Florida State and Virginia.

Diabate was pretty much a situational player in 2019 when he saw most of his action on obvious passing downs. He is an absolute terror off the edge where very few tackles or tight ends have the quickness to stay in front of him. Of Diabate’s 17 tackles last year, he had 4.5 sacks, 2.0 quarterback hurries and he forced a fumble in the Vandy game that Jonathan Greenard picked up and returned for a touchdown. He will still be a frightening guy for opposing QBs when he blitzes but he’s got to develop into more of an every down guy who doesn’t have to leave the field when it’s not a passing situation.

Florida’s coaching staff was excited to land Derek Wingo (6-2, 220, FR), one of the nation’s top prep linebackers, in the 2020 recruiting class. He is thought to be the leader of the future as he combines great instincts with a coach-like approach to the game. Barring injury, he will not redshirt and will see the field early and often.

Another who probably works his way into the rotation is redshirt sophomore Andrew Chatfield Jr. (6-0, 243), who figures to play on the strong side but could be moved inside to take advantage of his physical strength.

David Reese (no relation to David Reese II), seemed poised to be a regular in the rotation after spring practice in 2019, but he suffered a knee injury in August that sidelined him. There is no questioning his talent or abilities, but after a redshirt freshman year and missing last year in its entirety, the question is how long will it take him to shake off the rust?

Ty’Ron Hopper (6-2, 220, RFR), Jesiah Pierre (6-2, 230, RFR) and Lloyd Summerall III (6-6, 220, RFR) all took a redshirt last year as true freshmen. This year they will all three have a chance to earn playing time, particularly on special teams. Hopper and Pierre seem destined to play on the inside. In the case of Summerall, it seems only a matter of time before he fills out his frame and moves to the defensive line.

SCHOLARSHIP LINEBACKERS (11) Jeremiah Moon (6-6, 240, RSR)

Ventrell Miller (6-0, 225, RJR) Lacedrick Brunson (6-1, 230, RJR) James Houston IV (6-1, 235, RJR) Andrew Chatfield Jr. (6-0, 243, RSO)

David Reese (6-3, 225, RSO) Mohamoud Diabate (6-2, 220, SO) Ty’Ron Hopper (6-2, 220, RFR) Jesiah Pierre (6-2, 230, RFR) Lloyd Summerall III (6-6, 220, RFR) Derek Wingo (6-2, 220, FR)

POSITION ANALYSIS: The Gators run a base 3-3-5 defense that can morph on the fly into a 3-4 or 4-3 thanks to versatile linebackers who are comfortable and capable in nearly every set called in from the sideline by coordinator Todd Grantham. Grantham’s ability to stay one step ahead of opposing offenses requires guys who can easily adjust but that requires an on-the-field leader who is cool, calm and collected in every situation. Reese’s ability to settle everyone down was an overlooked asset. Someone has to step in that role and be the guy who is a calming presence that can get everyone in the right place and makes the last second adjustments based on what he’s seeing.

From a pure talent standpoint, this is an exceptional group that is capable of being one of the best units in the entire Southeastern Conference. The Gators have a core group of experienced guys who have been part of one of the best defenses in the country (The Gators ranked 9th nationally last year in total defense, 8th against the run and 7th at keeping opponents off the scoreboard). To take that next step from an 11-win team that finished 8th in the final polls and was a handful of plays away from reclaiming the top spot in the SEC East Division, the Gators are going to require an even better season from their linebackers.

Jeremiah Moon has been building to a big year. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

The three starters figure to be Miller, Houston and Moon with Brunson filling in on the inside and Diabate spelling Moon on the outside. It will be very difficult to keep Wingo off the field. Even as a true freshman, he figures to be an impact player largely because he’s capable of playing extended snaps both inside and out on the edge. Summerall could very well emerge as a guy who plays a lot of snaps in passing situations due to his size, length and speed.

To get through an SEC season, Grantham needs at least six guys he can count on and head coach Dan Mullen needs those young fast linebackers to fill holes on special teams. The young guys who make their presence known on special teams will be the ones who earn their way onto the field when the defense takes over. Because of solid recruiting, the Gators are in good shape from a depth perspective but they still can’t afford a rash of injuries since they really only have five guys with adequate game experience. Moon, Miller and Houston especially need to stay healthy.

Position coach Christian Robinson has been a huge reason for recent LB success. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

Talent is not an issue. There is an abundance of speed. Depth is adequate because there are guys capable of playing inside or out in space. To achieve the kind of success that will push the Gators past Georgia and into the top spot in the SEC East, one or two leaders has to emerge to fill the departed shoes of David Reese.

If someone emerges as that coach-on-the-field type that impacts the game both with his play and with his ability to get teammates to respond when he calls out an audible, Florida’s defense has a chance to go from the very good they were in 2019 to elite. There is a fine line between very good and great and that fine line, in the case of the 2020 Florida Gators, might boil down to who can light the fire under teammates when the defense is on the field.

Who will that be?

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